Today in Literary History – March 26, 1911 – playwright Tennessee Williams is born

One of the most important American playwrights of the 20th century was born in Mississippi on March 26, 1911 as Thomas Lanier Williams.

For reasons he never clearly explained he chose the pen name Tennessee Williams when he was 28, but he was always known to his friends as “Tom.”

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His plays The Glass Menagerie (1944), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), Suddenly Last Summer (1958), and Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), are considered to be among the greatest American plays of the last century. Many of them made the transition to iconic films.

His plays, although not altogether autobiographical, are loosely based on his family background and life experiences.

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Williams as a child

His father was a blustery alcoholic salesman who provided Williams with the character of Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

In The Glass Menagerie he drew on his sister Rose for the character Laura. Rose was diagnosed as schizophrenic and was given a lobotomy and institutionalized. Williams was devoted to Rose her entire life, paying crippling amounts of money to see that she had the best care.

His mother was a difficult figure for Williams. She lived to the age of 95 and even as Williams himself grew into middle age he remained ambivalent about her.

Some biographers describe her as overprotective of him in his early years, especially through a near fatal bout of diphtheria and later during his father’s anger over his perceived effeminacy. He based Amanda, the mother in The Glass Menagerie, on her.

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Williams spent years writing unsuccessful plays before The Glass Menagerie suddenly thrust him into fame. He had a long string of successes but it took a toll on his fragile mental health. The last decades of his life were clouded by depression, drug addiction and alcoholism.

His plays are naturalistic and filled with flawed but recognizable characters. Williams summed up the basic conflict in his plays as being between “elegance, a love of the beautiful, a romantic attitude toward life (and) a violent protest against those things that defeat it… (Including) the merciless harshness of America’s success-oriented society.”

Even though he himself gained success he seems to have always been haunted by the spectre of ruin and defeat. His friends considered him to be a hypochondriac, constantly fearful that he was going blind.

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Williams with his partner, Pancho Rodriguez

He was often torn between his public persona – Tennessee, the flamboyant playwright – and his private persona – Tom, the shy and kind man devoted to his friends. A gay man, he had a number of long term partners to whom he remained close even years after the relationships ended.

Williams died in New York in 1983 at the age of 71 after accidentally choking on the plastic cap of either a container of eye drops or a nasal spray.

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